THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE WE AND THE I"
Strange but true fact: movies set on buses make for surprisingly good cinema. Jan De Bont's Speed and Spike Lee's Get on the Bus are fine examples of this. While the idea of two hours spent watching people ride a form of public transportation may not sound inherently exciting, it allows for examination of behavior and personal interaction (even if said bus will blow up if it drops below 50 MPH). The We and the I, the new film from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry is yet another bus-centric winner, in part because it takes you places you don't expect to go.
The movie is set on the last day of school and follows a group of Bronx teenagers riding the city bus home. The rush of an impending summer casts its spell upon all of them, including an overly flirtatious girl, a sensitive artist, and the leader of a gang of bullies. While riding home, they laugh, talk, fight, and share a YouTube video of a fellow classmate falling victim to a prank. Secrets are revealed, long suppressed feelings expressed.
Part of the beauty of the The We and the I is that it initially appears to be a cinematic sociology project, looking at the group dynamic on the bus, but as it moves closer to its ending, the focus slowly narrows to one character. I won't tell you which one so as to preserve the story's flow, but I will say that a deeper layer of meaning becomes visible. When all is said and done, this is a story about the way people behave differently in groups. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to this phenomenon, thinking they have to be a certain way to be “cool” or accepted. The central character in The We and the I gradually strips away all pretensions – or, in one case, has them stripped away – and is forced to reassess how he/she is viewed by everyone else. The impact is sobering.
Michel Gondry has done an interesting thing here: he's cast non-professional actors (i.e. real kids) in the roles and had them play to their own personalities. Because his cast workshopped the project over the course of three years, the vibe among the teens feels authentic. It's easy to forget this is fiction and think you're watching a documentary. Gondry is, of course, known for his quirky visual style. While not as overtly eccentric as Eternal Sunshine, Be Kind Rewind, or The Science of Sleep, the director does vary up the visuals from time to time in order to keep things from feeling stale. Short fantasy sequences are scattered throughout, all shot on cell phones with an intentionally lo-fi aesthetic. Musically, Gondry makes great use of vintage rap, effectively integrating several Young MC tunes into the soundtrack.
Any movie of this nature is obviously a bit limited by lack of plot, but thankfully the fascinating characters we meet generally compensate for this. The We and the I is often raucously funny and occasionally touching, with real insight into the behavior patterns of adolescents. As the sun goes down and the last two passengers get off the bus, an elegiac vibe comes over the film. Summer may be just beginning, but you sense it won't be completely carefree for these kids. After all, being a teenager is tough work.
( out of four)
The We and the I is unrated but contains some sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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